Reflective Thoughts on the Recent US National Championships Print E-mail
Wednesday, 23 September 2009 10:29
Reflective Thoughts on the Recent US National Championships

By Jeff Pestun

About a month ago the 2009 US National Hot Air Balloon Championship concluded. Prior to that event I provided some of my thoughts on the upcoming event. In this post I'll reflect on the week-that-was.
This will be more of a narrative than coverage, as a task-by-task write-up will be found in an upcoming issue of BALLOONING.

Upon arriving in Battle Creek, many (including me) had the feeling of "deja-vu all over again". If you participated in a Battle Creek even during the 80's or early-mid 90's you probably stayed at the 16-story Stouffer Hotel in the heart of downtown. And while various other establishments have been used in recent years, the 2009 Championship brought with it a return to this landmark, now known as the McCamly Plaza Hotel. In addition to providing accommodation for most of the teams, debriefing and the awards brunch were also held there. For many of us it brought back a lot of memories.

As expected, Derrick Jones and the rest of the Holiday Balloon Fest team did a fantastic job of hosting the event. Although this is their first time with the Nationals, they have been bringing balloons to Battle Creek for over 10 years. The positive relationship that the all-volunteer group has with the community and their sponsors is immediately evident, as signs and fliers were everywhere. Also the number of PZ's in the area is a far fewer than it was 10-15 years ago, indicating a strong effort to re-introduce the sport to the community.

The big story for the week was probably the weather. Personally the event reminded me a lot of last year's Worlds in Austria, an event that I blogged while attending (check out http://2008worlds.blogspot.com/). In both cases the days leading up to the competition saw the weather forecasts go from very promising to marginal to downright bad. By the time Thursday morning arrived there were pessimistic rumblings from some that we might not get a single flight off. Of course that turned out not to be the case, but of the three flights flown only Thursday afternoon ended up being a "sure-thing" decision. Saturday morning's was green-lighted only after a lengthy hold, with Sunday morning's conditions requiring some analysis of the speedy (but stable) conditions aloft. Of course just like Murphy says the weather improved after the last flight of the event, with clear skies setting in for the following 15+ days. Had the Championship been held a week later we probably would have flown 20+ tasks, burned a lot of propane, and had many fewer casual, sit-down meals.

On a related note, this was my first experience with Brad Temeyer as a weather officer. Let me just say that I was very impressed. During my 20+ year ballooning "career" I've been exposed to some very quality meteorologists, including those at high-profile national and international events. In my opinion, Brad's work at Battle Creek puts him right up there with the best. Like the other competition officials that I'll talk about later, Mother Nature threw Brad to the wolves during his first Nationals. He never got to stand up in front of us and say "The weather looks good, here are the winds..." Instead, under ever changing conditions he had to commit to predictions several hours in advance for flights of 10-20 miles in length. Personally, I very much appreciated the methodical, inclusive approach to his analysis. It's obvious that he's a balloonist and understands the focus of an event like the Nationals.

Of course I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about Maury Sullivan and the rest of the competition staff. Most people know that this was Maury's first time running the Nationals, although he's was certainly far from a "rookie" in the world of task-callers. But even outside of any first-year nerves this group might have had (but certainly didn't show), there were several other challenges in front of them. Although Battle Creek has hosted high-profile balloon events for nearly 30 years, this was the city's first Nationals. The Holiday Balloon Fest and others have done a great job of acclimating the local population to the sport and what it offers, but the more competitive focus of this event is something the area hasn't seen in almost 15 years. What would the sponsors and community expect from the event? Also, the BFA's Competition Division made a commitment to returning Pilot Declared Goals and Fly On Tasks to the toolbox of the competition staff. In what could be described as "trial-by-fire", Maury and his staff worked through several issues related to the use of loggers to score these tasks. Even with just 3 flights this resulted in some very long hours for Mike Gilligan, Lynn Sullivan, and the rest of the scoring staff. As a competitor it's easy to forget that while this was our first time flying a logger-scored Fly On Task, it was also the officials initial try at calling and scoring one. My hat goes off to them not only for taking that challenge on, but also for being willing to involve the pilots in its evolution. Undoubtedly their work will have an effect on events beyond the US.

Prior to the master briefing Maury Sullivan led an open-forum for first-year competitors. I'm not sure if this has been done in the past, but in my opinion it was a valuable way for we rookies to ask questions in a setting that was perhaps less intimidating than the master briefing. Even some seasoned competitors joined the group.

On a personal note, I was pretty happy with how I performed. I did manage to avoid any significant mental errors, although there were certainly a few tasks where I wished I'd descended sooner or maneuvered a little different. Because we flew just 3 or 7 flights it was hard to get into the normal "fly-nap-fly rhythm" of a longer event. With 24-26 hours between flights each seemed distant from the last, meaning you really had to be deliberate about re-focusing. Also each of the three flights took place under very different conditions, so you had to be versatile. The lone evening competition took place with about 40º of steering, resulting in a gravity-drop fly-in with half the field inside 14 meters. One morning presented reduced ceilings that prevented any high-level maneuvering. And the final morning was a classic "right-with-height" situation that had most making calculated descents from faster winds aloft into a slower 40º-50º turn on the deck.

After an event I always try to seek out the staff to let them know how much I appreciate their work. Sometimes the need/desire to "hit-the-road" can make that difficult. I managed to catch a few people after the awards brunch, but certainly didn't get to everyone. So to all involved with this year's Nationals: "Thank you!" I can only imagine the hours and energy that it takes to put on an event of this caliber. See you in 2010...

Last Updated on Sunday, 17 April 2011 13:58